Dissents Of The Day

A reader writes:

As a Jew who shares your disgust over the practice leading to the recent herpes death of a New York infant, I'm still offended by your comment about an orthodox religion advocating the "cock-sucking" of a child. I am, in fact, non practicing, but your information is bad, and your comment therefore not only misleading but inflammatory. It suggests two falsehoods: that Orthodox Judaism is monolithic, and that within Orthodox Judaism there is a consensus about this practice. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Three prominent Talmudic scholars in the 19th century – Rabbis Moshe Schreiber, Azriel Hildesheimer, Chaim Soloveitchik – all individually ruled that a glass tube should be used to draw away blood rather than the mouth. All three of these were prominent Talmudic scholars, and the Orthodox sects that ignore their rulings are akin to Catholic sects that think the Church has been going in the wrong direction for the last 600 years. They represent extreme groups within the already ultra-Orthodox haredi sects and are nowhere close to Modern Orthodox Judaism, which I imagine you are familiar with. More recently, and perhaps more relevantly, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a microbiologist and Talmudic scholar at Yeshiva University, ruled that due to the very health risks this unfortunate case has brought to light, the practice was actually prohibited under Jewish law.

What you seem not to realize, and why your comment is so misleading, is that the groups that perform the disgusting practice of sucking away the blood likely regard Rabbi Tendler as a heretic, and thus find his opinion to be worthless, and probably blasphemous. I'm hardly suggesting the practice is defensible in any way, and this may be the first time in my life I've defended Orthodox Judaism, but your comment is not only inaccurate, but slanderous. You're known for appreciating nuance; do the same here.

By the reader's own logic, my comment is not inaccurate. I made no comment on whether this was true for all orthodoxy, and linked to a story that said otherwise. But the NYT story notes that

Roughly two-thirds of newborn boys in the city’s Orthodox communities are circumcised with metzitzah b’peh, said Rabbi David Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, who said he was using a calculation based on religious school enrollment figures… In 2005, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg assembled rabbis throughout the city to try to persuade them to move away from metzitzah b’peh. But they said that the practice was safe and that there was no definitive evidence that it caused herpes. "The Orthodox Jewish community will continue the practice that has been practiced for over 5,000 years," Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said at the time. "We do not change. And we will not change."

Another reader:

Listen, I know you probably don't know this, because you're Catholic and don't live in New York, but there's more to that story than you're reporting. Frankly I'm kind of pissed off that you'd pick up on that story and harp on it.

The hospital that kid died in is in one of the most deeply religious and isolated sections of Brooklyn's Chassidic community: Borough Park. This is the neighborhood that my wife's family (who are Orthodox) regards as "Oh, they're *really* crazy over there." The parents of the boy were most likely not aware that this practice was a danger to their child, this is how their family has been doing this for generations. This is how the circumcision every male child of every person in their community was done. Hell, this is how the father was probably circumcised. And their baby son died.

When my son had his bris, I warned the mohel that if his lips came anywhere near my son's penis, I was going to assault him. He told me he'd done over 80,000 of these, been in business for over 35 years, and NEVER touched a baby's penis with his lips. The practice is called "Metzizeh b'peh," and it's because the mohel is obligated to "draw blood away from the wound." In most brisim that are done every year, the mohel uses a piece of sterile gauze to perform this task. When the traditions of the family say it should be done by mouth, most mohels use a sterilized glass pipette. For the people of Borough Park (the ones that are totally isolated and dress like they're from 17th century poland) they might insist that it be done "the old fashioned way."

There's a tiny minority of people who do this, and they don't do it out of malice or with reckless disregard for the health of their child. They're doing it because it's tradition, and tradition in their community is quite possibly the most important factor (something I'd imagine a conservative could appreciate). In their world, they were trying to do the right thing for their son, and suffered the most immeasurable loss.

I'm not defending this practice. I think it's barbaric and dangerous. The vast majority of Orthodox Jews don't do this. And come on, their two-week-old baby died.

A tiny minority? If you want to argue that this is forbidden by many Orthodox authorities, how do you explain that kind of statistic – "roughly two-thirds" – or the fact that Mayor Bloomberg felt he had to intervene? Regarding the Islamic example, another reader:

The Kargar case is an interesting one; I remember it from my Crim class in law school. I don't think it's evidence of an Islamic sanction of male-male phallus affection, though.  The Afghan practice in the case is a syncretic, pre-Islamic rite that has no sanction in Islamic law that I am aware of.  It may be the case that there is no prohibition against the practice in Islamic law, but that is different than it being sanctioned or approved.  Tolerated is probably the best way to describe its status under Islamic law as applied in Afghanistan.  That is not to say that in other Islamic jurisdictions the practice would be similarly tolerated.

But again, I did not say that infant cock-sucking was endemic to Islam. It's clear from the case that it was a cultural tradition in Afghanistan, which would include Islam, but not suggest it was widespread feature of the religion as opposed to a cultural manifestation of it in one particular locale.

I suspect some Jewish and Mulism readers are so touchy about this because it is a barbarism that embarrasses them. It's time to get over the embarrassment and start protecting children from these grotesque assaults on their tiny bodies.